Boy Swallows Universe: The true story behind the Aussie-based Netflix show blowing up worldwide

Poised to be Netflix's most successful Australian series, Boy Swallows Universe is loosely inspired by real life events.

Netflix has just dropped the full seven-part screen adaptation of Boy Swallows Universe, and it's already a massive hit with audiences worldwide, ranking as the fifth most popular show on the streaming service, globally. Based on Trent Dalton's bestselling novel, the series transports audiences to 1980s suburban Brisbane and is already earning praise for its "beautiful and brilliant" portrayal.

The success of the series isn't just about star power – with Aussie actress Phoebe Tonkin and US actor and former Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel leading the cast – but also its authentic, real-life roots. It breathes life into a compelling coming-of-age tale, exploring the trials faced by brothers Eli and August in a turbulent era.

Boy Swallows Universe Netflix
Netflix's Boy Swallows Universe is based on a true story and brings to life one of Australia’s most beloved books by author Trent Dalton. Photo: Netflix

Author Trent Dalton's own troubled childhood inspired the story

Boy Swallows Universe runs deeper, drawing on Dalton's own unconventional upbringing in Queensland. Loosely based on Dalton's troubled youth, dealing with a drug-addicted mother and a heroin-peddling stepfather, at its core, the story revolves around the author's profound love for his unconventional family and mirrors his own experiences as a child, reflected in the character of Eli.


Eli is determined to make the most out of his life, despite the odds being stacked against him. Influenced by figures including his criminal stepfather, and mentor, "Slim" – a convicted killer and national record-holder for successful prison escapes (and yes, a real-life person) – the limited series takes viewers through the criminal underworld of 1980s Brisbane.

Eli's stepdad, Lyle, is based on Dalton's own complicated stepfather, while the character August Bell amalgamates Dalton's three older brothers into a mute figure communicating through prophetic messages.

Scene from Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix.
Dalton's work blends fact and fiction to depict his challenging childhood in Queensland with a drug-addicted mother and a stepfather involved in heroin peddling. Photo: Netflix

'The most beautiful and complex people I’ve ever known'

Indeed, all the main characters find inspiration in real people from Dalton's childhood. “The key characters all draw on the people I love most in the world," he explained to publisher Harper Collins, "The most beautiful and complex people I’ve ever known, and I never even had to walk out the door of my house to find them."

"I just wanted to give the world a story," he continued, "to turn all these crazy and sad and tragic and beautiful things I’ve seen into a crazy, sad, tragic and beautiful story.”

Dalton's mother is a central figure in both the book and the series. In an interview with the Townsville Bulletin in 2018, he said: "My mum is my hero. She inspired the character Frankie Bell, and I don’t have enough words in the book to go on about all the things my mum survived, things that other people would have succumbed to."

Discussing the novel's connection to his mother's life, he added: "To be honest, the book doesn’t say a tenth of what she’s been through, and, in turn, my admiration for her, for coming out the other side of those things.”

Felix Cameron and Trent Dalton pose for photographs during the Netflix global premiere of Boy Swallows Universe.
Boy Swallows Universe is the screen adaptation of Trent Dalton's best-selling semi-autobiographical novel. He is pictured here with Felix Cameron at the premiere. Photo: Jono Searle/Getty Images for Netflix

The result of these complex, real-life inspired characters is a narrative that combines personal experiences and imaginative storytelling, creating a unique exploration of family, identity, and the challenges of coming of age in a turbulent environment.

In a conversation with publisher Harper Collins on the true story of Boy Swallows Universe, Dalton revealed, “All of me is in here. Everything I’ve ever seen. Everything I’ve ever done. Every girl I ever kissed on a wagged school day, every punch I ever threw, every tooth I ever lost in a Housing Commission street scrap and every flawed, conflicted, sometimes even dangerous Queenslander I’ve ever come across, as the son of two of the most incredible and beautiful and sometimes troubled parents a kid could ever be born to.”

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